The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle

(Des McAnuff, USA, 2000)


Movie studios are always looking for a family project with a two-tier appeal: entertaining small children while winking slyly to their parents. Even more intensely coveted is a film that can bridge or even unite separate generations of moviegoers around the same, feel-good spectacle.

No wonder, then, that producers have turned with such fervour to remaking fondly remembered TV shows of the 1960s and '70s. Such projects are, however, treacherous: the nostalgia factor can be counted on to attract older viewers, but how to establish instant familiarity on the part of those younger audience members who may never have even heard of the originals? The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) and Lost in Space (1998) are only two of the woeful movies of this sort that have failed the test.

The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle attacks this challenge by starting out as a simulacrum of its former self – a rickety, low-budget cartoon, including an entire history of the original TV series. It then tweaks this format by introducing insistent notes of knowing, ironic self-mockery – like in Ghostbusters 2 (1989), our heroes are presented as washed-up and outcast in the world of contemporary pop culture.

Finally, there is a bold move – the show's animated villains break through to the other side of a TV screen and reappear in human form. From that point, Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro), Boris (Jason Alexander) and Natasha (Rene Russo) mix it up with the animated Rocky and Bullwinkle, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) – a comparison which reduces Fearless to apoplectic rage ("That's a completely different movie!").

Co-produced by De Niro, this is essentially a movie for very young kids, squarely in the recent and rather underrated tradition of Dudley Do-Right (1999), Inspector Gadget (1999) and Mr Accident (2000). It takes delight in the corniest, silliest and most childlike gags – at, for example, the level of character names, including Minnie Mogul (Janeane Garofalo) and Judge Cameo (Whoopi Goldberg).

At its inspired best – as when FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) points a Hollywood green light at our heroes and pulls levers labelled 'road movie' and 'fantasy adventure' to start them on their way – this film recalls such Surrealist gems as Rene Clair's The Crazy Ray (1925).

In the movie's lesser moments, director Des McAnuff and writer Kenneth Lonergan (Analyze This, 1999) seem too anxious to nudge adult viewers into noticing the excruciatingly laboured puns and outrageous plot coincidences. And, despite the pleasing level of cartoonish stylisation in the sets, costumes, music and performances, it is mostly a film of passing jokes rather than well-constructed, properly physical gags.

Still, it is fun. Over fifty years ago, the great Surrealist writer Jacques Brunius sadly observed that "it is becoming almost impossible to compose a programme for children" because the "childlike naïveté of yesterday's pioneers" had vanished from film production. The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle restores a little of that precious naïveté.

© Adrian Martin January 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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